Because I have lived in development countries in the past 20 years, this is a subject that is very close to my heart. I read the article on Panos Pictures and 8 ways to change the world. I find the criticism that is given about documentary photography and its effects on our view of development countries very striking and true. When I look at images taken in the countries where I have lived, I often feel almost offended by the way these countries and especially the people are portrayed.
The notion that the very language of photojournalism is ‘white man’s language’ and that in order for a photographer to be successful, you have to speak the language, even though it is not the same as the language used in the culture that is photographed. The idea is to take the language and put your own mark on it. For documentary photographers I think this starts with a willingness to look beyond first impressions, overcome fear of the unknown and poverty and look at the human strength and narratives behind what is seen at first hand.
Looking at the work that was exhibited in ‘Eight Ways to Change the World’, I could see some distinct difference between photographers, showing different levels of engagement and power of the individual. I compare the work of Chris de Bode and Zed Nelson.
Chris de Bode’s images all have the same compositional make ups. Square, with rich, dark colours, with a blend of subject and background. The way Bode puts his subjects in the frame immediately triggers the eye to move between person and place, building a narrative as more details of the person and environment become clear. The captions add a layer of understanding of empathy and make me want to look at the image even more, see beyond the expression of the people in the photographs and almost make me feel I am there, wishing that their dreams will come true.
There is a strong balance between individual, personal stories and information about the community as a whole. I think this strengthens the relationship with and understanding of the communities and the individual lives that take place. There is a tension between dreams and possibilities, the impossibilities that seem evident, but that the dreams are still there. It breeds respect for the people and children in the image, which an NGO really needs in order to receive support for the work they do.
Zed Nelson’s work, on the other hand, lacks engagement with his subjects. The colours are flat, compositions are simple and the expressions of his subjects are sad and distant. There is not a lot of interaction between him and his subjects, which results in shallow images and repetitive captions. Besides that, the images bring about a feeling of pity and not respect. Why show pots and meager amounts of food and not the final dishes that people are able to produce with it anyway? Why mention that their work is gruesome, but don’t mention how there are communities built on this work and how they organize themselves to improve their situation?
To me it is clear that he got stuck with feeling overwhelmed by what he saw and was not able to connect with the people on a deeper level. I wonder what could have been done differently so that the photographer would have been able to connect and convey a deeper understanding in his photography? At first sight it seems he did not spend enough time in the community, the images are rushed and hardly any are taken in a home environment. Maybe he had not done enough research, or it was the first time he visited a development country and had not had the possibility to look beyond the initial shock that poverty brings.
Enough to think about and good to see such striking differences